Health & Wellness

New round of funding expands UGA lab’s research on concussions

The University of Georgia will continue its partnership in the world’s most comprehensive concussion study thanks to a new round of funding from the U.S. Department of Defense and the NCAA.

Faculty in the UGA Concussion Research Lab in the university’s College of Education joined the project in 2014, with the shared goal of understanding how concussions affect the brain and identifying ways to improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention. Known as the NCAA-DOD Concussion Assessment, Research and Education Consortium, or CARE Consortium, the study is led by the Indiana University School of Medicine, the University of Michigan and the Medical College of Wisconsin, in collaboration with the Uniformed Services University.

So far, researchers across the country have collected data on more than 39,000 student-athletes and cadets at 30 colleges and military service academies, including more than 3,300 who have experienced concussions. This represents the largest sample of concussions ever researched in a single study.

At UGA, faculty and graduate students in the Concussion Research Lab administer baseline assessments to all student-athletes and also provide evaluation services to any athlete who sustains a concussion. The data collected by the lab has also been used in several published research papers, with assistant professors Julianne Schmidt and Robert Lynall, co-directors of the lab, as authors or co-authors.

“It has been a great honor for UGA to serve as a CARE Consortium site over the past four years, and we are excited to continue this important work,” said Schmidt, a co-investigator on the grant. “We work hard to provide the best possible concussion evaluation and management services to UGA student-athletes. Combining our efforts with the other sites within the CARE Consortium allows us to research the injury in a much larger sample over a much more diverse group, which ultimately cycles back to improve the care we provide here at UGA and across the country.”

This second phase of the study is funded by a $22.5 million grant over several years.

The initial study was made possible by a joint NCAA-Department of Defense grant of $30 million and focused on the acute effects of concussions by evaluating concussed participants with a sequence of clinical and advanced research tests in the hours, days and weeks after a head injury, then comparing the results with baseline tests given at the start of the study.

The new phase will include comprehensive testing of participants when they leave college and up to four years after their collegiate sports or service academy career has ended. This expanded approach will enable researchers to study the intermediate and cumulative effects of concussion and repetitive head impact exposure. More importantly, researchers hope to differentiate between the effects of concussion, repetitive head impact and sports participation with no history of either concussion or repetitive head impact exposure.

“We have gathered important information about the short-term effects of concussions over the past few years, but there is still a lot we do not understand about how our brains respond to different types of impact over time,” said Thomas W. McAllister, chair of the psychiatry department at Indiana University School of Medicine and the leader of the study’s administrative and operations center. “By comparing these groups across multiple years, we think we can parse out the effects of concussions, versus repetitive head impacts, versus normal life at university. This is critical for us to make informed decisions that protect our athletes, members of the military and other members of our communities.”

The evaluations will include clinical tests to assess attributes such as balance and memory but also will probe changes to participants’ psychological health to determine what role, if any, concussions and repetitive head impacts may have on depression, anxiety and emotional control. Researchers also will continue to conduct advanced research tests, including genetic analysis, brain imaging and blood tests to measure biomarkers associated with inflammation and nervous system dysfunction. It is conceivable that the advanced research tests will help identify genes and other objective markers that render an athlete or cadet more or less susceptible to concussion or injury from repetitive head impacts.

The NCAA is providing $12.5 million in funding over two years for the second stage of research. The Department of Defense approved a two-year grant of nearly $10 million.

“This new phase of funding represents a critical extension to the original study goals, allowing us to take an unprecedented look at cumulative and persistent effects of concussion and repetitive head impact exposure,” said Brian Hainline, NCAA chief medical officer.